Standing amid the wreckage of burned-out trucks and a downed Japanese fighter plane, they can gaze up at the sinking U.S.S. West Virginia as thick, black smoke curls its way slowly across the sun. They can listen to the lapping of oil-choked waters against the shore and hear muffled explosions in the distance. They can even be transported to a typical American home the day after the attack and hear President Roosevelt address the nation while they leaf through that week's newsmagazines and hang ornaments on a Christmas tree.
All it takes is a virtual-reality headset and pair of handheld controllers.
"It was very, very much like being there," said Kathy Ernst, a retired teacher from Alaska who had never tried virtual reality before she strapped on a pair of goggles Monday at a pre-release event for "Remembering Pearl Harbor," an exhibit running from Dec. 5 to Dec. 11 at the Newseum.
Narrated by a 103-year-old veteran of the day of infamy,"Remembering Pearl Harbor" takes place entirely in virtual reality, a technology proponents say will transform education, communication and entertainment. The immersive simulation was produced jointly by Time Inc.'s Life VR studio, HTC Vive and the entertainment firm Deluxe VR.
For many Americans, the digital experience will probably be a first. The Newseum sees roughly 800,000 visitors every year from across the country, making the journalism- and media-focused institution an on ramp to a product many have only heard vaguely about, much less seen for themselves.
"We're on the cutting edge of introducing this technology to a generation for whom we believe it's going to be a very powerful and accessible medium," said Mitch Gelman, the Newseum's chief technology officer.
Hopping into the Pearl Harbor exhibit is like opening a time capsule and clambering inside. Objects scattered around the '40s-era suburban home can be picked up and inspected — from pots and pans to baseball mitts to books, letters and newspapers. Look closely enough, and you can even read the words that have been imported digitally into the re-creation.
"Remembering Pearl Harbor" will be followed next spring by a virtual replica of East Berlin and the Berlin Wall, taking visitors on a tour of the watchtowers that once guarded the Iron Curtain and the tunnels used to smuggle Soviet citizens to the West. Future VR exhibits will showcase the Montana cabin that once housed the "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, and the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where black activists staged the first sit-in of the civil rights movement.
Attendees of Monday's event got an early taste of the Berlin Wall exhibit. Described as a work in progress, the re-creation lets viewers sweep a searchlight over an empty street and even take a mallet to the Berlin Wall itself, leaving cracks in the imposing facade.
"I mean, it really does capture [the experience]," said Annette Metraux, a D.C.-based marketing executive. "Since I had been to the Berlin Wall when it existed, it just brings back a lot of memories of things you'd forgotten."
Virtual-reality technology is still relatively inaccessible to the public, both due to cost as well as the know-how to make it work. A fully fledged, interactive setup such as the HTC Vive costs $800 apiece. More affordable, lower-tech versions of the technology, such as the $99 smartphone-dependent Samsung Gear VR, don't offer as much in the way of features or graphical fidelity.
But as the technology improves, experts see uses for it in everything from training first-responders to helping victims of psychological and physical trauma. Virtual reality could allow artists to draw their characters at life size, and for engineers to visualize their prototypes before them in three-dimensional space, Tony Stark-style. And it could radically change schooling by putting science students on the surface of Mars or inside a cell.
But for now, places like the Newseum are using it to make historical moments come alive and feel more accessible.
"I was in Pearl Harbor," said Zoe Spielvogel, a journalism student at George Washington University. "I was really living it."